Every year in towns around the United States, families open their homes to high school students from other countries, expanding the student’s global experience while cultivating a cultural diversification for the host city.
Education First High School Exchange Year has connected many students from Europe and Asia with families to stay with in the U.S. Mark and Marcia Benway of Williston welcomed Samuel Wolter, a foreign exchange student from Germany, into their home through the program and will host him through this school year as he attends Williston High School.
EF promotes global awareness through student exchange and has been doing so for over 40 years. After World War II, cultural exchange became a priority in the United States and senator J. William Fulbright helped to start EF’s non-profit high school exchange program in 1979 that is now one of the world’s largest of its kind.
Wolter, a sophomore from Bavaria in south Germany, came to Williston in August after a short two-week notice due to some complications with school enrollment. Arriving with just one suitcase and a backpack, the Benways introduced Wolter to the two family dogs and showed him to his room, as the three started a new journey together.
The Benways became interested in being EF exchange hosts from seeing a friend find enjoyment in the program. After meeting with the local EF director, they picked Wolter’s profile. Through the program, prospective exchange students fill out information about themselves — their likes, dislikes, hobbies, age, gender, and home country — for host families to “match” with. Subsequently, hosts submit information about themselves, their family and photos of their home.
Having no kids themselves, and then suddenly having a highschool sophomore, the Benways had some hiccups at the beginning with class schedules and figuring out where the school even was, which came as a humorous bonding experience for the group. Wolter, who has four siblings back in Germany, is finding enjoyment in playing the role of the only child.
“I love it,” Wolter said, smiling. “I’m the middle child … so I know how to live on my own more than my siblings, I would say. It's more fun for me.”
Wolter’s parents encourage the cultural expansion that the exchange program provides. Having been hosts to multiple exchange students themselves, they encourage their children to participate. Their eldest son was a part of EF and spent a school year in Texas in 2016.
“My parents are as excited as me,” Wolter said.
In German schools, there are no affiliated sports or celebrated school spirit like U.S. schools are known to have. So Wolter is fully immersing himself in that aspect of the culture by running for the high school cross country team, which has resulted in many hours of traveling to meets on the weekends. He has plans to play basketball and possibly do track in the spring, as well as run the Williston marathon in June.
“(It’s) a wonderful organization that has brought countless students to North Dakota,” said Lauren Stone, a regional coordinator with EF. “They are committed to providing a meaningful experience for students and host families. This is a great way to not only open your eyes to the world, but open your heart.”
Williston can host up to five students per year. Exchange students have to raise their own money and pay for their personal expenses and healthcare while abroad. The host family is required to provide three meals a day, transportation and housing. Students need to be provided with their own bed and a quiet place to study. It is encouraged to treat their student like a member of the family and not as a guest. A local EF coordinator assists with making sure students and families are a good fit and with any issues that may arise.
“It's been a lot of fun, it just picked up naturally,” Marcia said. “We can’t believe how well he fits in. It’ll probably be a pretty sad day when he leaves, the dogs are even going to miss him.”
Along with the dogs, the Benway’s nieces and nephew have taken to Wolter as an extension of the family. Mark and Marcia communicate often through video chats with Wolter’s family in Germany to keep them up to speed. As with many other similar stories, the exchange program relationships go far beyond just host and student.
Along with the exchange program, Education First also offers academic study, educational travel and language courses. To learn more about the program and hosting, visit efexchangeyear.org.